Buyer beware: The truth behind some of those 5-star ratings on Yelp

The consumer review site Yelp.com is one of my favorite social media sites and my go-to for everything from restaurants to dentists. But do you ever see a business with an average 5-star Yelp rating and wonder if the place really is as amazing as all that, or if they have manipulated their reviews in some way? I had a recent experience which answered that question.

Some think these businesses have generated fake 5-star reviews to offset negative reviews, and sometimes that may be the case, but there is more to the story. It’s not that they’re posting fake good reviews so much as they are suppressing negative customer reviews to keep their average high.

I recently did business with a well-known Chicago-area service provider. That is as much as I can say to identify them, because if I named them I could possibly get sued. This business has a 5-star average rating on Yelp which they use to market themselves as the “best” in Chicago and so forth and so on.  I’m sure most of the 4- and 5-star reviews are genuine reviews by actual consumers who were thrilled with their service.

I ended up having major issues with their service, which is why I objected to my final bill. My experience with this company bore little resemblance to anything in the glowing Yelp reviews, on which I had largely based my decision to hire them. It was like the company I read about on the site and the company I got were two different businesses in terms of professionalism and integrity. I couldn’t understand how my experience could be so vastly different from that of the reviewers.

The other shoe finally drops

The company apologized for the problems and offered to give me a sizable credit on my bill for my inconvenience … but only after I signed an “agreement” which they emailed to me. This agreement contained a clause stipulating that in return for the “discount,” I would not “disparage” their company on Internet review sites.

Because I had actually had no intention of doing such a thing anyway, I signed it just to put the whole episode behind me and get on with things. Almost immediately after I did so, I had regrets. As a consumer, and especially as a lawyer, it offended me on different levels and went against my better instincts.

I should have known better.

First, this clause was of questionable legality if for no other reason than the charges the company agreed to remove never should have gone on my bill in the first place, because among other issues, I did not actually receive the products promised. There should have been no “conditions” or consideration placed on removing them and nothing that I should have been required to do or refrain from doing in return. They weren’t doing me a favor or cutting me a break; they were doing something they were obligated to do anyway.

Second, it’s legally questionable because it suppresses my speech rights as a consumer.

It was then that the other shoe dropped for me. So this is how this business—and many like them, no doubt—maintains these perfect Yelp, Google and other review ratings. It’s not that the good reviews are fake, it’s that they are paying off and gagging most of their potential bad reviewers.  Most consumers aren’t in a position to turn down money in order to be able to post an opinion.

I have been contacted by businesses that offered to give me some sort of concession in return for taking down a bad review, but I had never signed such a thing before. There have been cases of some restaurants and other businesses actually suing negative Yelp reviewers for libel and the like, but they usually fail because among other things, opinion is considered protected speech. So they have figured out other ways of legally suppressing bad reviews.

Be suspicious, be very suspicious

So my advice is: Be automatically suspicious of any business that has perfect or near-perfect ratings on any review site. Very few enterprises are actually that good. Make a point of looking at their one or two bad reviews and see what these say, because usually even the 5-star places have a smidgen of poor reviews. Consider that for each of these reviews, there are probably many more reviewers who were offered some sort of bribe to take the review down, or signed away their right to post one.

I think the businesses with three or three-and-a-half stars actually might be better bets. This likely means the company is not artificially manipulating its reviews. There will always be some people who are unhappy with any service and they tend to be more motivated to post online reviews than people who aren’t.  So given that, I think the 3-star or average-rated businesses are doing pretty well.

I've always felt that the greatest thing about the advent of Yelp and such sites is that they leveled the playing field between powerful companies and ordinary consumers and empowered regular people. Pre-Yelp, your only option as an aggrieved consumer was to file a Better Business or other complaint which is generally useless. It actually made business enterprises accountable to the public for the first time.

I hope that the state attorneys general and legislatures will begin looking into these practices by companies.

They may have got me this time, but they won't get me again.

Filed under: advice, consumer, legal, media, society

Tags: legal, media

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